When they heard the rebels were nearing Konna, a small town 700 km north of the Malian capital of Bamako, young men in nearby Djenne contemplated the state of their defences.
Last year, Islamists captured vast tracts of Malian territory, including historically important cities like Timbuktu and Gao where they banned drinking alcohol, smoking, playing music and imposed harsh punishments like flogging, stoning and amputations for supposed crimes like theft and adultery. They desecrated Mali’s rich Sufi Islamic heritage by demolishing several historic and sacred shrines.
What began as a rebellion by the Tuaregs, a community with historic grievances against Bamako, broadened into a multiethnic conflict led by self-identified Islamist groups like Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who want to turn Mali into an Islamic state governed by the Sharia, a system of Islamic jurisprudence drawn from numerous sources.
Three hours southwest of Konna, Djenne is a town of narrow alleyways and cul-de-sacs sprawled around the Grand Mosque, a fragile 13th century edifice of clay and mud, the largest earthen building in the world. On that sunny afternoon, there were no security forces stationed near Djenne; the conical domes of the Grand Mosque cast enigmatic shadows across the main square. “Well, we have the river,” said a resident, “There is no bridge, and we can tell ferrymen to park on this bank and remove the engines.” The boatmen seemed more circumspect. “If al-Qaeda arrives on the banks, I’ll bring them across,” laughed the captain, “If the army can’t stop them, it’s unlikely that my ferry will.”
On January 10, the rebels took control of Konna and were halted only when France came to the aid of its former colony. Since then, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is in the process of assembling a regional ground force to aid the French effort. French jets have pounded rebel positions across Northern Mali, an area larger than France, but have neither retaken Konna nor prevented the opening of a second front along the Mauritanian border in the west.
The puritanism of the Islamists in the North …